I’ve been thinking a lot about Battlestar Galactica. The remake/reimagining version, which I’ll refer to as ‘BSG’, starring Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell, Katee Sackhoff, Jamie Bamber and a host of other rather awesome people. That version. Rather than the still-kind-of-awesome-but-didn’t-strike-quite-the-same-chord-with-me-but-that’s-not-to-say-it-was-a-bad-show-in-its-own-right-quite-the-opposite original 1978 version with Lorne Greene, Richard Hatch and Dirk Benedict.
This was a weird show for me. Stop me if I’ve talked about it before. It was odd because, although I’ve never consciously been a Mormon (a faith whose religious traditions formed some of the foundation for much of the original series’ lore and so has echoes in BSG as well) something about the religiosity of the show — its spiritual dimension, if you like — intrigued me even while it was annoying the living frak out of everyone else and causing people to declare the last season and finale of BSG literally the worst TV ever committed to… er… TV.
BSG, based on the original series Battlestar Galactica, originally conceived by famous 1970s and -80s TV guy Glen A. Larson (see also Airwolf, Knight Rider et al), is probably the nearest thing TV has ever offered to a reflection of my own religion, albeit a bit more space-shippy: many gods represented by the Romano-Greek pantheon, and a regularly repeated (hah) tenet that “All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.”
(I mean, I’m not saying it’s a very cheerful or enjoyable religion…)
But that BSG was also a stonking good people-focused sci-fi epic that explored both contemporary and timeless issues and themes in a compelling story, underscored by powerful music influenced by countless styles and cultures, is just a bonus.
Its relatable characters reflected little bits of me, too — which I suppose is inevitable in an ensemble show, and even the point. Though not all of them clicked with me. I mean, I had nothing in common with either of the Adama lads: Lee or his father Bill, Galactica’s CO. They lived military lives, lives of service and discipline, and so utterly alien to me.
‘Starbuck’ – the wayward and insubordinate but very very good fighter pilot Kara Thrace – I clicked with not because she was a really good fighter pilot but because she was a complete frak-up. Also probably to some extent because she, too, started out as a boy: in the original 1978 series, Starbuck – the character’s actual name in that show – was played by Dirk Benedict. Though, as a clarity note, at no point in the new BSG is there any suggestion of any gender-related shenanigans: Thrace herself did not, as far as we know, start out as a boy.
I felt some affinity with some of the Cylon characters, too; and with hapless bad guy Gaius Baltar, who was mostly a bad guy out of a lack of courage to be anything else…
And ops officer Anastasia Dualla has to get a mention, too. Initially a background character, she became more fleshed out as the series went on. A competent administrator and communicator, reliable and positive in attitude, I found I connected with her because let’s just move on, shall we?
The series began as a relatively straightforward action thriller, set in a society of twelve colony planets, descendents of twelve tribes of refugees from the semi-mythical planet Kobol. For a sci-fi series, very little of BSG was actually styled as sci-fi, which is something I think added enormously to the show’s realism. Almost everything about the Colonial civilisation mirrored our own contemporary society: they drove cars, used mobile phones, had an Internet of sorts, drank caffeinated drinks and alcoholic drinks, and they had paperwork to do. The differences were really only small: their overall tech level was probably five or ten years ahead of ours, but not much more — except that, for reasons never explored, their society had faster-than-light travel and artificial gravity.
Kara Thrace had a Jeep at home, though. Or at least something that looked very much like one.
The Colonials had also dallied with artificial intelligence, and some time before the show’s setting, had invented a line of robots they called ‘Cylons’. The Cylons had proved too intelligent, had become self-aware, and had rebelled against their human creators (because does that ever NOT happen?), sparking a protracted space war between man and machine. Nobody really won, but the Cylons retreated back into the darkness of space and weren’t heard from again.
The Colonial Fleet was at the forefront of the war, and in particular the giant, heavily armed and armoured fighter carriers called battlestars. As the show opens, the ageing, Cylon-war-era battlestar Galactica is being decommissioned: she’s to become a museum piece; her starboard fighter launch deck has been turned into a gift shop.
Commander William Adama is about to retire. His son Lee ‘Apollo’ Adama, a skilled and senior fighter pilot, has been estranged from him following the death of Lee’s brother Zak in a flying accident. Kara Thrace was Zak’s instructor… and was also romantically involved with him. There is tension.
Into all this wanders Gaius Baltar, a brilliant scientist but a man, shall we say, lacking in moral fibre and fortitude. When a similarly brilliant, and additionally very attractive, blonde woman approaches him to ‘consult’ on a project, he’s quite happy to hand over all the information and access his position affords him. Including the codes to the Colonies’ defence network, set up after the Cylon War.
Baltar doesn’t realise that Cylons have adapted. They look human now.
His lady-friend takes all his info, deactivates the defence grid, and the Cylons nuke the Twelve Colonies. The fleet yards are destroyed, all the battlestars crippled or killed – except Galactica, which was not connected to the compromised military network.
“Progress reports arriving. The farms of Aerilon are burning. The beaches of Canceron are burning. The plains of Leonis are burning. The jungles of Scorpia are burning. The pastures of Tauron are burning. The harbors of Picon are burning. The cities of Caprica are burning. The oceans of Aquaria are burning. The courthouses of Libran are burning. The forests of Virgon are burning. The Colonies of Man lie trampled at our feet.”
— Cylon Hybrid after the attack
But not everybody burns. Around 70,000 humans — those in flight between the colonies, or otherwise not in reach of the Cylon strike — flee in whatever ships are to hand. The Galactica escapes. The surviving ships gather under Galactica’s protection, and, jumping clear of the Cylon forces, set out on a quest to reach the rumoured colony of the legendary Thirteenth Tribe of Kobol: a planet called Earth.
The series then follows the ragtag Colonial fleet as it makes its way towards Earth, while trying to stay ahead of the pursuing Cylons. Beginning as a straightforward (if dazzlingly good) sci-fi adventure, BSG lost a lot of goodwill amongst its fans for precisely the reason it eternally secured mine. There were many references to the dominant Colonial religion in the show: characters frequently referred to ‘the gods’, also calling them the ‘Lords of Kobol’, and as the show progressed it became apparent that the Colonial gods were those of our real-world Graeco-Roman pantheon: Zeus, Athena, Artemis, and so on, with the God of War being referred to in one episode by his Roman name of Mars. As a Roman pagan of course this appealed to me: it was inspiring to see my gods treated and dealt with as familiarly amongst the Colonials as the Christian God is in modern Britain.
But also central to the Colonial mythology was the prophetic ‘Book of Pythia’, an ancient tome detailing a complex prophecy which appears, in some readings, to describe the Colonials’ flight from danger and which informs many of the decisions made by the Colonial President, Laura Roslin, and Bill Adama, now — as the highest-ranking surviving fleet officer — de-facto admiral and commander of the military. As the story goes on, the prophetic and spiritual elements of the show begin to take a more prominent role, even to the point of a finale which a great many fans condemned as being nothing more than vague mysticism and hand-waving to get the writers out of a tight spot.
I loved the finale. With, admittedly, one minor personal tweak to what’s explicitly shown and described on screen (one of those “the show doesn’t rule it out” assumptions), the finale is, to my mind, absolutely spot on, and did absolute justice to everything that had gone before it.
HERE BE SPOILERS for DAYBREAK – the series finale of Battlestar Galactica. DO NOT READ ON if you haven’t seen the show yet, intend to watch it, and hate knowing what’s coming.
By the end of the show, the ragtag fleet has located Earth, only to find it a ravaged wasteland, uninhabited, completely destroyed in a nuclear war two thousand years before, and still irradiated. After a final confrontation with the Cylons near to a raging black hole singularity, Starbuck uses a mysterious song that several crew members have been hearing from an unidentified source as a code to plot one last FTL jump. The fleet arrives at what we recognise as ‘our’ Earth, where, finally, they settle, abandoning their ships and technology. It’s revealed that they settled the Earth 150,000 years in our past, and that the Colonials and a faction of allied Cylon rebels, eventually interbreeding with the native humanoids, were the ancient forbears of modern humanity.
Many people have said because of this that BSG takes place in our past. I don’t believe it does. I believe the finale does – but only the finale.
Starbuck fired the FTL next to a black hole, where time is known to go totally screwy. I believe the fleet jumped not only in space but also in time: they were thrown over 150 back into the past. The Earth they found – the pristine new planet they settle – is the same Earth as the radioactive desert they’d previously abandoned. Their last jump created a time loop which gave rise to the Pythian prophecy and the doctrine that “all of this has happened before”. And it’s why “all of this will happen again”.
Again, while this isn’t explicitly confirmed in the show’s dialogue, I can’t see a better way to wrap up an excellent storyline except by tying it into what the prophecy has been telling us all along (…the watchtower).
It’s no stretch to suppose that this is what happened, and without it… well, I guess I would be with those disillusioned viewers feeling that the ending was just too contrived (two Earths? Really?). But having the show begin and end humanity’s story on Earth makes it perfect.
In any event, even if you end up not enjoying the finale, I would certainly recommend watching the show anyway. It is a magnificent achievement, and its run of four seasons (three and two halves in the UK) put it far above many shows that continue to slog onwards, losing coherence and direction, for as many seasons as they can afford. For my money there are few shows that’ve been as gripping, as relevant and as spiritually engaging as Battlestar Galactica.